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VOL. 127 | NO. 77 | Thursday, April 19, 2012

Boling Center Focuses On Autism Awareness, Help

By Aisling Maki

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Since April was first designated Autism Awareness Month back in the 1970s to educate the public about autism, the numbers of children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders has continued to grow.

Recent research by the Centers for Disease Control show autism today affects one in 88 children, and one in 54 boys.

“At this point in time, we have more questions than we have answers for what causes autism,” said Dr. Colby Butzon Reed, a psychologist at the Boling Center for Developmental Disabilities, housed at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center in Memphis.

Butzon Reed says there does appear to be some sort of genetic component, but its exact nature is still unclear.

“One of the reasons we think there is a genetic component is that autism spectrum disorders tend to run in families,” she said. “A person who has a sibling or a parent with autism is at greater risk of an autism diagnosis. But we do know autism is not related to bad parenting or childhood vaccines; there’s been research on both of those things to rule those out.”

The Boling Center at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center is the first place many Memphis-area parents turn to for advice when they suspect their child could have autism.

Comprehensive examinations are performed there by staff psychologists, developmental pediatricians and speech-language pathologists with expertise in autism and other developmental disabilities.

Symptoms, which manifest differently depending on the individual, may include physical displays such as hand flapping, rocking and spinning, or mental indicators such as interests confined to a specific topic.

“There’s a wide spectrum of difficulties that a person with autism could have, and no two people with autism are going to be exactly alike,” Butzon Reed said. “But the core symptoms we look for with autism spectrum disorders are difficulties in social interaction, language deficits and repetitive behaviors or restricted interests, and those things can look lots of different ways depending on the person.”

Because of the wide range of symptoms, the term “autism spectrum disorders” has become more commonly used in the medical and mental health community.

“That’s so that we can fully capture the thorough spectrum of strengths and weaknesses and different skills in different people with this diagnosis,” Butzon Reed said.

In addition to diagnostic services, the Boling Center offers a variety of therapies for autism spectrum disorder, including applied behavior analysis, better known as ABA, to help modify certain behaviors.

Boling Center also conducts research, and has collaborated with Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital on a new family autism clinic that provides diagnoses and ongoing support for families navigating specialists, therapies and school systems.

Butzon Reed also recommends parents find support through the Autism Society of the Mid-South, which she said is “a great place for parents to be around other parents who are experiencing similar things in their lives. I know a lot of our families feel support there.”

With its main campus housed in the city’s medical district at the Boling Center, the Harwood Center – with a more than 50-year history of serving Mid-South children with developmental disabilities – also has satellite locations in East Memphis, Cordova and Collierville. The school focuses on children from birth to age 5, many of whom have been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders.

Claire Moss, Harwood Center’s development director, said many of the parents who come to the center are raising a young child who’s just received an autism diagnosis.

“They’ve known something’s wrong with their child, but they don’t know what,” she said. “Once they get that diagnosis, it gives them access to those services. Early intervention is critical because around 80 percent of your brain develops between birth and age 3, making it the optimal time for learning. The learning experiences you get at that age carry you through all your other educational opportunities, so missing out on that window is big.”

The Harwood Center’s goal is usually to prepare young children for mainstream school with typical children. And in addition to cost savings later in life, early intervention means children with autism spectrum disorders are much more likely to lead higher functioning lives.

“Watching a child who maybe had no language, no eye contact or multiple tantrums learn to speak and communicate is a real joy for these parents,” Moss said. “When children get the help they need, they become much more functional, and can be very productive. With the right services, support and opportunities, and acceptance by the community, many of these children can do more things than some other children can do. They often don’t have cognitive deficits; they’re extremely intelligent and can excel in music, math and a variety of other things. With the right support, they can go off and live highly functional lives.”

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